In local hands
Updated: Jan 24
Or how to support village ownership of tourism in rural Transylvania
How do we encourage village ownership of the accommodation and services that tourists hope to find in rural Transylvania, and in this way supplement, not replace, a living made from the land?
At the moment, all the best cards are held by those with capital, and these are almost always outside investors. The single most important challenge is to overcome the shortage of local capital.
Small public grants offered to local residents wishing to renovate a part of their house to create a guest room and bathroom, is one good way. This would help lower the barrier to entry into tourism for local householders, and it would lessen the competitive advantage enjoyed by well-heeled second home owners and property developers.
Private initiatives, such as that run by the long-established Mihai Eminescu Trust, go some way to achieve this, but a state-sponsored system of grants is required if widespread village ownership of tourism is to happen.
At the very least, the state should offer local householders a grant to defray the high cost of securing the necessary permits for restoration work on village houses in protected areas. At present, the permitting process for buildings in villages such as Copșa Mare, which is listed as a heritage site, is costly, time-consuming and very complicated indeed.
For example, permitting of the restoration of the street facade and rebuilding of an historical roof on an old and very small Saxon village house in 2020 costs a minimum of 5000 EUR, and this does not include the geotechnical investigation, the topograhical land survey, the technical verification, and the fees required by the authorities. Together, these bring the total cost of securing permission for the work to over 7500 EUR, and the whole procedure may take up to a year. This doubles the cost of the project.
The high transaction costs of securing permits has at least two unintended consequences. The first is that restoration and renovation work is done without permits, often with disastrous results for both the health of the building and its appearance. The second is that outside investors in tourism, with plenty of capital and able to afford the permitting process, are handed yet another competitive advantage over villagers.
There needs to be a scheme whereby local householders that follow restoration guidelines and have secured the required permits receive a grant to recover at least most of the costs involved with permitting. Ideally, those who signed up to the scheme would be put into a faster, less costly permitting process, thereby saving the state money.
If it is desirable to encourage local householders to restore their houses well, with the right materials, colours, and rooflines, then it seems only sensible for the state to offer them an incentive to do so legally, by making permitting both manageable and affordable.
Such an approach would help to preserve the traditional appearance of these old houses. It would improve the infrastructure needed to serve tourists. And it would make it easier for local people, not just outside investors, to share in the economic benefits that tourism brings, and in this way ensure that Transylvania's rural tourism is truly sustainable, laying its golden eggs in good time, that is to say, slowly, and for local people.